Sunday, July 29, 2012

Eritrean soccer players escape to freedom, and a common dilemma - Metro - The Boston Globe

LYNN — In the cramped living room of their bleak apartment, four athletic young men confront a common immigrant dilemma.
You leave your country, where things were bad but you were somebody. You land in an America you know only from the selective gauzy tales of those who came before you, or from the reflexive optimism of immigration officials, or from the giddy din of “American Idol.”
No place could live up to that rosy blur. Here, you are just another newcomer with no English, and you need a job. Journalists become janitors. Doctors become dishwashers. Professors become parking attendants. Now the best chance to be somebody lies with your children, or their children.
To this you resign yourself. Or you don’t.
So far, these men don’t. “We are famous in our country,” says Filmon Mehari, speaking through a translator. He and his friends — Samuel Hagos, Henok Golom, and Aron Berhane — were among the best soccer players in Eritrea, where the sport is sacred. They won championships for the storied Red Sea Football Club, wore blue for the national team in African tournaments.
Eritrea is “a giant prison,” according to Human Rights Watch, where dictator Isaias Afewerki has shut down the independent press, the judiciary, and freedom of religion, where forced labor, torture, and death are as common as air.
Last summer, the four men, ages 18 to 25, were among 13 players who eluded their handlers to seek political asylum after a tournament in Tanzania. Two months ago they landed in Lynn, with help from Catholic Charities. Other teammates went to Texas and Virginia.
The men are beyond grateful to be here. “In America, I can have the freedom to be what I want to be,” Mehari says. They have found a store that sells injera, the bread that is a staple back home. They are taking English classes. They are getting used to things.
“This is a women’s country, I think,” Mehari says. “They have all the same rights.”
“I have heard people die and give their money to dogs,” says Golom, whose English is better than the others’. “In Africa, the dogs protect you, but in America, you protect the dog.”
In addition to these minor adjustments, there is one major one: They are not playing soccer.
“When I come to this country, I thought, ‘I am going to be a professional player,’” Golom says. They had been led to think that latching on to a team would be easy. They practiced all the time so they would be ready. They are in their prime playing years.
They will briefly entertain questions on other topics, but this is all they want to talk about. “We have the record, we are professional players,” Berhane says. “If a team sees us, they might want us to play for them, but they have to know where we are.”
Where they are is at a crossroads faced by countless refugees before them. Their meager state assistance ends in six months. Caseworkers at Catholic Charities are gently urging them to temper their expectations, to take any jobs they can find.
In Eritrea, Hagos was trained as a carpenter, Mehari as a mechanic, and Golom as an accountant, a profession for which Berhane has also studied. But because of their limited English, these professions are beyond their reach right now. If they got jobs, they’d most likely be menial.
Do they go there now, or do they hold out for the dream?
“We were so young when we started dreaming about soccer,” Golom says. “It is in our blood. We could play for a college, we could train kids.”
Sitting with them, and their longing, you can’t help wanting to save them from this choice so many have made before them. You can’t help hoping that some coach, some school, will find them, and say: play.

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